Impact of School Closures on Girls due to COVID-19: In Conversation with Dr. Vimala Ramachandran

India’s struggle to make schools accessible to girls, and to ensure they stay in school, has been a long and uphill journey. Enshrining the right to education as a fundamental right for all children between 6 and 14 years of age through the Right to Education (RTE) Act in 2008, and the National Education Policy (currently being revisited as the draft New Education Policy), coupled with campaigning efforts on the necessity of educating the girl child have all been pivotal in earning some amount of success in bringing girls to schools. However, reducing drop-out rates among girls has continued to be a challenge. The burden of domestic chores, responsibilities in looking after younger siblings, early marriage practices and social attitudes that dictate the preference to educate the boys in the household instead of the girls have been significant roadblocks in ensuring access to education for the girl child. The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to undo years of advocacy and policy efforts aimed at increasing enrolment and literacy rates among girls. The current crisis has necessitated school closures, the impact of which is being felt by millions of school-going children across India. The risks associated with the same for girls, however, are likely to be heightened, especially for girls from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds.

Dr. Vimala Ramachandran has worked and published extensively on education, health, gender issues and women’s empowerment and has been engaged in advocacy for universal quality education and girls’ education. She co-founded Mahila Samakhya – a Government of India programme on women’s education – and served as the first National Project Director from 1988 to 1993. She is currently on the Research Council of Azim Premji University, Bangalore, and is the Managing Director at the Educational Resource Unit (now known as ERU Consultants Private Limited), which is a network of researchers and practitioners working on education. Most recently, she is engaged in researching educational needs of out of school youth, especially girls.

In this conversation with her, Shreeradha Mishra explores the nuances of the disproportionate impact of school closures on girls and discusses the role of effective policymaking and implementation to address the disruption caused by COVID-19 to the lives of school-going girls.

SM: The school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic have forced millions of school-goers all over the world and in India to stay home. This is likely to have impacted girls in different and disproportionate ways as compared to boys. Could you highlight some of these impacts and the underlying reasons?

VR: The impact on girls, especially from poor and middle class families is expected to be far more severe for a wide range of reasons – girls end up sharing a greater load of housework / farm work / animal-related work than their brothers; girls have less access to mobile phones, as we saw in the recent studies co-authored by me.1

In both these studies we found secondary school girls did not have any access to smartphones or simple mobile phones. Boys have mobile phones, even smart phones – but most girls in rural Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh in the sample villages said they do not have access to phones. Even when families have phones, they are not encouraged to use it. So online learning is practically impossible. Besides, informal tuitions are fairly common in both rural and urban areas. It is a common observation that parents readily spend on sons’ and not on daughters’ tuitions. When schools are shut down, tuitions are perhaps the only informal learning space. This would be far more acute for girls in high schools and higher secondary schools.

SM: The 1986 National Policy on Education for the first time recognised the need for girl-child specific policy to address the gender gap in education in India. This policy also saw the establishment of the grassroots initiative Mahila Samakhya, of which you were the first National Programme Director. This initiative has been evaluated to have significantly increased demand for rural girls’ education, and consequently an increase in female literacy rates in rural India. A crucial aspect of this initiative was the ability of the programme to reach out to out-of-school girls and create learning opportunities for them in alternative centres and residential camps. In the wake of the pandemic, there is a need to re-think and re-invent more of such innovative solutions albeit in the context of a completely uncharted territory. How do we bring girls back to school, and keep them in schools, when the definition of a school and a classroom is currently going through a shift?

VR: The irony is that when the BJP came to power in 2014, Mahila Samakhya was shut down as a centrally sponsored scheme. Most states were not ready to continue the programme and the states that continued it linked it to the Department of Women and Child Development’s ICDS (Integrated Child Development Scheme) / Stree Shakti / Nari Adalat and child helplines. The original idea of the programme was pushed aside and today it is seen as a delivery programme for women and girls. The education and awareness dimension is practically non-existent now.

SM: A lack of access to nutrition for girls, especially in rural households, has been a significant contributor to the existing practices of gender discrimination. The mid-day meal scheme ensured they received at least one meal a day at schools. Under the prevailing circumstances of indefinite school closures and accentuated poverty due to the extended lockdown, what can the government do to alleviate this risk?

VR: When families go through a food crisis, we know that women and girls not only eat last, but they get the leftovers. They may also not get adequate nutrition when all they eat with rice or roti is watery vegetables, dal or meat dishes. Even when schools are closed, the government should restart the mid-day meal programme so that all children have access to at least one nutritious meal a day. Equally, in the post Covid-19 period, where poverty and hunger has become more pronounced, schools need to consider providing breakfast to all children.

SM: According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), in 94.6% of cases of child sexual abuse, the perpetrator is known to the child, and is often times a parent, relative or school teacher. How does the lockdown exacerbate the risk of abuse for children, especially for girls, and what can be done to address the issue?

VR: During lockdown, when families are huddled in small spaces, the chances of domestic violence against women and children, and sexual abuse by family members of both girls and boys, is known to have increased. Newspapers report more distress calls in urban areas. Equally important is the fact that in rural areas when girls go out to graze cattle or to bring fuel or fodder, they are vulnerable to sexual abuse / violence / harassment. When men and boys have little to do and are ‘hanging around’, they are also more prone to frustration, anger and violent behaviour. This could also aggravate the situation. The only way out of this is a vibrant and strong women’s group and also a Nari Adalat in every village and urban ward that is girl-friendly and has women who would be willing to listen to girls, support them and bring the perpetrators to be booked through the Panchayat. We also need to create greater awareness at every Panchayat level to the vulnerability of women and children (both girls and boys) to violence and abuse and the importance of a safe space where they feel comfortable sharing their fears and bringing issues to the notice of persons in positions of responsibility.  We also need to become more alert to trafficking – especially of older children as labourers.

SM: What are some of the immediate challenges that the government needs to address in order to realise last-mile and equitable delivery of education in a post-COVID India?

VR: The government needs to consider the following –
(a) Sensitise all teachers to the issue of trauma and fear that COVID-19 has generated among the people and especially among children;
(b) Ascertain learning levels of children, organise them in small groups and impart teaching at the right level to each group – for instance, what good bridge programmes used to do in the mid-1990s and the kind of work we did in Mahila Shikshan Kendras. A two-three-month programme should be aimed at enabling children to reach their grade-specific level. Teachers need to be trained for this and where feasible, possible local NGOs could be involved in this process;
(c) Make story reading/ reading aloud an integral part of daily language-related school work. There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that children who are able to read with comprehension and read well have the potential to become self-learners and do better in all subjects. Ensuring all children have access to grade or level-specific story books in their own language or medium of instruction is essential;
(d) Make games, sports, art and craft an integral part of the curriculum alongside fun ways of explaining the pandemic and why children need not fear if they adopt the requisite practices to stay safe. This could be incorporated as part of the morning assembly or before or after lunch and could be a valuable addition to the curriculum.

SM: How do you see the public vs private debate playing out in the education space post the pandemic? Are we likely to see more collaboration between the public and the private education systems?

VR: I do not see it as a black and white scenario. Public education is absolutely essential for poor children and also middle-class children. We have to focus on strengthening the public education system, improving quality and bringing it at par with the high-end government schools like Kendriya Vidyalayas and Navodaya Vidyalayas. That should be the benchmark. My own work in the health sector has shown that it is the public system that sets the benchmark – low-cost and other forms of private schools will always compare themselves to the public or government schools to reach out to the poor and middle classes. If we push the quality of our government schools, this will have a ripple effect on the private sector.


Works referred to:
[1] (2019 Draft). Ramachandran, Vimala, Nagpal, Nagendra. Secondary Education in Rajasthan – quality and systemic functioning explored. Project supported by AJWS. New Delhi

(2018). Ramachandran, Vimala, Saxena, Niti. Quality and Systemic Functioning in Secondary Education in India – A study in Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand. Research commissioned by The World Bank, New Delhi.


Note from the editor: Special thanks to Nivruti Tagotra, staff writer at the ISPP Policy Review, for her inputs.

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India has successfully improved school enrolment in recent decades yet failed to deliver actual learning. The ASER Survey by NGO Pratham (2020) spotlights large learning deficits in students’ foundational learning. For instance, only 50% of Class V students can read texts of Class II level. More than half the students in Class VIII struggle to do simple division. The pandemic has deepened this crisis, especially because of the physical closure of 15.5 lakh schools that has affected more than 248 million students for over a year. These learning gaps are becoming critical with the emergence of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is emphasising digital technology, artificial intelligence and other allied technologies. Thus, it is integral to redefine education and structure it to suit the evolving technological transformation.

In response to this situation, the National Education Policy 2020 sounds like a clarion call to integrate technology at every level of education. It envisions the establishment of the National Education Technology Forum (NETF) to spearhead efforts towards the use of education technology. It recommended employing EdTech through app-based learning, online student communities, and lesson delivery beyond ‘chalk and talk’. By envisioning schools as nodal agencies, through which the underserved can access internet-powered devices, the NEP recognizes artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), and blockchain as requisites in India’s education ecosystem. Thus, EdTech becomes a crucial link between enrolment and enhanced learning outcomes

CHALLENGES

The Indian EdTech ecosystem has a lot of potential for innovation. With over 4,500 start-ups and a current valuation of around $700 million, the market is geared for exponential growth — estimates project an astounding market size of $30 billion in the next 10 years. Eg. Byju’s, Unacademy. Despite the early implementation of technologies in the education system, India still faces teething problems.

Firstly, there are institutional obstacles. The lack of a dedicated unit to coordinate digital infrastructure, content and capacity building within the Education Ministry to look after the online learning needs of both school and higher education. Institutions need to be strengthened and made responsive to the evolving trends to ensure the dissemination of quality education.

Secondly, gender bias needs to be addressed as the gendered availability and access to technology and tools such as smartphones, laptops and internet connection is very common, especially in rural areas. Girls often face suspicion if they are demanding a phone. Education technology may not reach half of the population. A ‘Gender-Inclusion Fund’ should be set up to build the country’s capacity to provide equitable quality education to all girls and transgender students.

Thirdly, a wide digital divide. In India, the biggest obstacle to education technology integration is the prevalent digital divide and associated challenges of equity. Many view technology and associated opportunities as contradictory to equity and inclusion. Only 32% of the rural population are internet users. A national study carried out at the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration showed the gaps in inclusive learning mediated by technology. A high level of urban-rural disparity in online classes was found. Not everyone who can afford to go to school can afford to have phones, computers, or even a quality internet connection for attending classes online. NSS data for 2017-18 showed that only 42% of urban and 15% of rural households had internet access. Thus, planning for education technology integration needs a broader lens of student diversity in contemporary campuses where a large share of students are from lower social strata (Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes and from poor households). Many are from government schools, under-developed regions, remote villages and urban margins. Bharat Net Project to connect all the 2,50,000 Gram panchayats in the country and provide 100 Mbps connectivity to all gram panchayats should be implemented. Opportunities provided by education technology can promote egalitarianism if access to technology is democratised and inclusion is institutionalised.

Fourthly, the pace of change & increasing cost makes it tough for marginalised communities to keep up with the rapidly changing technology. Even for private schools upgrading technology presents a major financial challenge, let alone government schools that are usually frequented by such groups. For harnessing full potential, the education curriculum and mode of instruction need to be aligned with technology tools. This requires increased governmental budgeting, planning, design thinking and improving teacher training.

Next, the resistance to change and low professional development hampering success. The lack of adequate professional development for teachers, who are required to integrate new technologies into their classrooms, are unprepared or unable to understand new technologies. Teachers and school leaders are comfortable with the status quo and often see technological experimentation as outside the scope of their job descriptions. School schedules often don’t have time for projects involving the use of technologies. Rigid learning and testing models are failing to challenge students to experiment and engage in informal learning. Integration of technology-based non-traditional classroom models, such as flipped classrooms and self-paced MOOC (massive open online course) are integral (suggested in NEP 2020).

Lastly, a very significant concern comes from the privacy risks associated with EdTechs. Since the pandemic hit, online education has replaced conventional classroom instruction. For learning customisation, apps collect large quantities of data from the learners (minor students). Private data collected can be misused or sold to other companies with no legal oversight or protection. It is necessary to formulate an ethics policy for EdTech companies. Issues of safety, confidentiality and anonymity of the user would be central to building a healthier learning ecosystem and ensuring the privacy of students.

WAY FORWARD

The true potential of EdTech will require collaborative efforts between the government, private sector, and NGOs. There is a need to realise that public educational institutions play an important role in social cohesion and building relations. Therefore, technology cannot substitute schools or replace teachers. Thus, it should not be “teachers versus technology” rather “teachers and technology”. 

Thorough mapping of the EdTech arena (scale, reach, and impact) is needed to bridge the digital divide at two levels – access and skills – is required to effectively use EdTech. Moreover, EdTech policy formulation and planning must align with other schemes (education, skills, digital governance, and finance). Fostering integration through public-private partnerships, factoring in voices of all stakeholders, and bolstering cooperative federalism across all levels of government is integral. The NITI Aayog’s India Knowledge Hub, Digital India Program, Government of India’s Aspirational Districts Programme on tech-enabled monitoring and implementation and the Ministry of Education’s DIKSHA and ShaGun platforms are great steps in the promotion of EdTech to transform India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy.

Learning from successful models as a repository of the best-in-class technology solutions, good practices and lessons from successful implementation must be curated. Some examples are:

  1. Grassroots innovation in EdTech –
    1. The Hamara Vidhyalaya in Namsai district, Arunachal Pradesh, is fostering tech-based performance assessments;
    2. Assam’s online career guidance portal is strengthening school-to-work and higher-education transition for students in grades 9 to 12;
    3. Samarth in Gujarat is facilitating the online professional development of lakhs of teachers in collaboration with IIM-Ahmedabad;
  2. International Cases –
    1. Mindspark, a computer-assisted learning software, delivers lessons through videos, games and questions on computers and tablets. The software analyses each student’s learning level, pitches content suitable for their level and adjusts the difficulty according to the student’s progress.
    2. Kenya’s literacy program Tusome, uses coaches equipped with tablets who visit classrooms, evaluate student reading skills, provide tailored advice to teachers and upload assessment data to administrators.

Author Bio:

Himanshi Bahl is a Political Science Graduate from the University of Delhi. Her research interests include emerging technologies and foreign policy.

References:

Kant, A. (2021, June 30). The future of learning in India is ed-tech. The Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/the-future-of-learning-in-india-is-ed-tech-pandemic-online-classes-7381782/

Malish, C. M. (2020, August 21). Technology as an enabler. The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/technology-as-an-enabler/article32407777.ece

Mohammad Naciri & Atsuko Okuda. (2021, June 24). The gender technology gap has to end. The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-gender-technology-gap-has-to-end/article34939814.ece

Vincent, V. (2021, May 13). EdTech needs an ethics policy. The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/edtech-needs-an-ethics-policy/article34545004.ece

The anthropogenic forcing of greenhouse gases has turned out to be a dominant force propelling sea level rise. Sea levels in the 20th century have been rising at an average rate of 0.06m per decade.¹ The Indian subcontinent is highly vulnerable to threats arising from sea level rise given its demography. The country has a coastline that runs for 7,500 square kilometres. These coastal regions are home to about 170 million people.² Between 1996 and 2016, approximately 236 square kilometres of land was lost to coastal erosion placing people’s livelihoods in jeopardy. Based on a government report published in 2016, around 45.5% of India’s coastline has been affected by erosion of varying magnitudes.³ The coastal erosion problem is a complex effect of various natural processes working in the coastal zone and sometimes beyond it. According to recent scientific predictions, 36 million Indians are likely to be living in areas experiencing chronic flooding by 2100.⁴ Increasing climate-induced calamities and accelerating levels of erosion have called for intervention and support from the government in securing the livelihoods of coastal communities.  Existing policies in the country address displacement from rapid-onset disasters such as monsoons and cyclones under disaster reduction and rehabilitation policies. However, displacement due to slow-onset disasters such as coastal erosion are yet to find a place at the policy level. With the intensity and frequency of disasters increasing in the future, we require a foresighted national-level policy on managed retreat and adaptation in India. This paper analyses existing policies and suggests possible adaptation interventions that will help the nation deal better with the problem of coastal displacement. 

We realize that coastal erosion is an extensive and multi-dimensional problem for a vast country like ours. The Indian government has put in place policies, laws and committees to tackle climate change and climate-induced disasters. The main policy measures concerning coastal protection and management in India include the Disaster Management Act of 2005 that has a section dedicated to coastal protection and disaster management and the west coast policies to tackle coastal erosion. The Act provides for the establishment of several statutory bodies such as the National Disaster Management Authority, State Disaster Management Authorities and District Disaster Management Authorities. It also includes advisory committees, executive committees and sub-committees under the government. The Act lists out the action plan for governments during or post a rapid-onset disaster. It also puts together provisions that allow for the creation of relief funds and their usage during emergencies. The act is inadequate along several lines. The presence of numerous committees and the overlap of duties among authorities mentioned in the Act greatly reduces accountability. Further, the coordination among these bodies appears to be very cumbersome. Disasters cannot be effectively dealt with only through the government’s administrative setup. Even then the role of local authorities and communities in coastal management and protection has been greatly overlooked. The Indian Act also fails to recognize the need for identifying and using traditional knowledge and working together with NGOs.

Efforts are being made to counter the menace of coastal erosion and protect our coasts using both traditional approaches ( hard structures like Seawall, etc.) and the new, innovative soft measures like dune rehabilitation. Policies to curb coastal erosion on the west coast of the country have dealt with structural or hard measures such as the construction of seawalls, revetment, offshore breakwater, groynes/spurs and soft measures like offshore reefs and artificial headlands. Soft measures are usually more effective in the long run when compared to hard measures. Seawalls and other coastal engineering structures end up obstructing the littoral drift of sand and sediment, thus, causing erosion on the northern side and accretion on the southern side of the structure. In the end, they do not prevent erosion as they only transfer the problem further north of the east coast.⁵ The impact of these hard options on neighbouring coastlines create a situation where hard structures are then required in these new areas creating a vicious cycle. An example of such a spiralling effect is the seawall construction in Kerala  (a state government initiative to curb coastal erosion) and its impact on Karnataka’s coastline. The Kerala government has spent around 310 crores building seawalls along its coast.6 Of the 560 km coastline of Kerala, the state has constructed a seawall for 386 km. The government had sought funding assistance to wall the remaining 92 km and demanded INR 2.16 billion from the Centre. Seawalls along the coast of Kerala did help in preventing coastal erosion but as mentioned earlier the littoral drift was obstructed, accelerating erosion rates of the coastline along the state of Karnataka. Groynes suffer from a similar limitation. These man-made structures protruding into the oceans are known to cause accretion on the southern side and erosion on the northern side. Beach nourishment has proved attainable by methods of re-vegetation with temporary offshore breakwaters/artificial reefs. Artificial reefs provide shelter, food and other necessary elements for marine biodiversity to flourish. 

The west coast policies and the Disaster Management Act (2005) focus on mitigation measures mainly undertaken by the government thus alienating local communities from related coastal work. It is important to shift our focus from mitigation to adaptation. Intervention and policies for adaptation are extremely crucial given two main reasons. We cannot mitigate sea-level rise. Even if we drastically cut down emissions, experts concluded that global mean sea-level would rise at least 8 inches (0.2 meters) above 1992 levels by 2100. With high rates of emissions, sea-level rise would be much higher but was unlikely to exceed 6.6 feet higher than 1992 levels. Hence, it is more important to facilitate adaptation than mitigating impacts of sea-level rise. Adaptation policies focusing on alternative livelihoods, social security nets, preemptive retreat and social infrastructure will greatly enhance the resilience capacity of communities thereby enabling better response to a crisis. Existing policies in India address post-disaster management or displacement stemming from rapid-onset disasters but displacement due to slow-onset disasters such as coastal erosion is yet to find a place in Indian policy. Slow onset events are impacting lives and livelihoods leading to the weakening of a community’s resilience. It is important to identify vulnerable areas and build the capacity of local communities to efficiently manage future crises and prevent large scale life and material loss. The second reason comes from the unpredictability that haunts us. Climate change is complex because every system disturbance sets in motion positive and negative feedback. Interactions of various levels create unpredictable events and large scale destruction. The unpredictable nature of climate change and lag is a lesson to build resilience rather than focus on measures that only handle rehabilitation post-disaster. 

Shining a ray of hope on this oncoming crisis is the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management (NCSCM), Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, focusing on better protection, conservation, rehabilitation, management and policy design of the coast. NCSCM aims to support integrated management of coastal and marine environments for livelihood security, sustainable development and hazard risk management by enhancing knowledge, research and advisory support, partnerships and network and coastal community interface. NCSCM has the resources for data monitoring and the mission has started on a good note by tackling the issue of defining High Tide Lines (HTL) and putting forward revised regulations for keeping a check on polluting industries/activities and construction activity along critical coastal areas. Though the vision of this institutional regime is applaudable, little has been done on the ground. The notification though uses terminologies like sustainable development, sustainable livelihood, ecologically and culturally sensitive coastal resources, fails to detail the implementation strategies for each of them.⁷ The mission stands great potential in developing into the institutional setup that India needs in developing and implementing adaptation interventions. However, this is conditional on its alignment with the Millennium Development Goals on environmental sustainability and its focus on the long term impacts of all developmental work in the coastal zones of the country. 

Coastal communities are directly impacted by climate impacts causing declining productivity of fisheries and cultivation lands along the coasts. Existing measures do not help communities in dealing with economic losses. Understanding threats to the economic and social well being of the communities underlines the need for adaptation policies that will help reduce the climate vulnerability of communities and enhance their ability to flexibly adapt to changing conditions. Policies which create alternate livelihood opportunities, social infrastructure, planned retreat, and community involved coastal management need to find a place in India’s climate legislations.

The views expressed in the post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the ISPP Policy Review or the Indian School of Public Policy. Images via open source.

Bibliography:

  1.  Rahmstorf, S. (2008, July). The 5 Most Important Datasets of Climate Science. http://www.ozean-klima.de/.
  2. Panda, A. (2020, May 26). Climate change, displacement, and managed retreat in coastal India – India. ReliefWeb. https://reliefweb.int/report/india/climate-change-displacement-and-managed-retreat-coastal-india#:~:text=India’s%20more%20than%207%2C500%20square,related%20to%20sea%2Dlevel%20rise.&text=Beyond%20displacement%20and%20migration%20along,relocation%20in%20major%20coastal%20cities
  3.  Status Report on Coastal Protection & Development in India Central Water Commission New Delhi .(2016). http://old.cwc.gov.in/CPDAC-Website/Paper_Research_Work/Status_Report_on%20_Coastal_Protection_and%20_Development_in%20_India_2016.pdf
  4. NOAA Climate.gov. (2020, August 14).Climate Change: Global Sea Level | NOAA Climate.gov.www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-global-sea-level.
  5. Masselink, G., & Lazarus, E. (2019). Defining Coastal Resilience. Water, 11(12), 2587. MDPI AG. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/w11122587
  6. Warrier, S. G., Aggarwal, M., Aggarwal, M., Sarkar, S., Sarkar, S., Padmanaban, D., … Gopal, S. (2016, November 9). Walls can’t keep out the sea in Kerala. India Climate Dialogue. https://indiaclimatedialogue.net/2016/11/09/cant-keep-out-the-sea-kerala/. 
  7. Krishnamurthy, R., DasGupta, R., Chatterjee, R., & Shaw, R. (2014). Managing the Indian coast in the face of disasters & climate change: A review and analysis of India’s coastal zone management policies. Journal of Coastal Conservation, 18(6), 657-672. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24760673
  8. E. Vivekanandan. Impact of Climate Change in the Indian Marine Fisheries and the Potential Adaptation Options. core.ac.uk/download/pdf/33018848.pdf. 
  9. Barua, Prabal & Rahman, Syed. (2018). Community-based rehabilitation attempt for solution of climate displacement crisis in the coastal area of Bangladesh. 1. 358. 10.1504/IJMRM.2018.10016042. 
  10. Inti Carro, et al.,(2012, August 18) Building capacity on ecosystem-based adaptation strategy to cope with extreme events and sea-level rise on the Uruguayan coast ISSN: 1756-8692 Publication date: https://www.emerald.com/insight/search?q=Inti%20Carro
  11. Climate Change Adaptation in Fisheries and Aquaculture: Compilation of initial examples, FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Circular No. 1088, Clare Shelton,ISSN 2070-6065 http://www.fao.org/3/a-i3569e.pdf
  12. Podesta, John. (2019, September 4)“The Climate Crisis, Migration, and Refugees.” Brookings.www.brookings.edu/research/the-climate-crisis-migration-and-refugees/..
  13.  Alongi, D.M. Mangrove forests: Resilience, protection from tsunamis, and responses to global climate change. Estuar. Coast. Shelf Sci. (2008), 76, 1–13
  14.  Das S (2009) Addressing coastal vulnerability at the village level: The role of socio-economic and physical factors. Working paper series No. E/295/2009. 
  15. Alongi, Daniel. (2002). Present State and Future of the World’s Mangrove Forests. Environmental Conservation. 29. 331 – 349. 10.1017/S0376892902000231.
  16. Kantamaneni, K., Sudha Rani, N. N. V., Rice, L., Sur, K., Thayaparan, M., Kulatunga, U., Rege, R., et al. (2019). A Systematic Review of Coastal Vulnerability Assessment Studies along Andhra Pradesh, India: A Critical Evaluation of Data Gathering, Risk Levels and Mitigation Strategies. Water, 11(2), 393. MDPI AG. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/w11020393
  17. Barua, Prabal & Rahman, Syed & Molla, Morshed. (2017). Sustainable adaptation for resolving climate displacement issues of south eastern islands in Bangladesh. International Journal of Climate Change Strategies and Management. 9. 10.1108/IJCCSM-02-2017-0026.
  18. Ministry of Environment and Forests (Department of Environment, Forests and Wildlife). (2011, Jan 6).Coastal Regulation Zone Notification. www.iczmpwb.org/main/pdf/czm_laws/CRZ%20Notification%202011.pdf.

How would you define poverty? There are several definitions and each one of them helps us imagine poverty in different ways. One way to define poverty is the lack of resources required to lead a basic life. By this definition, as long as your basic needs of food, clothing and shelter are met, you are not in poverty. The United Nations defines poverty as the “inability of having choices and opportunities, a violation of human dignity.” A more quantitative definition from the World Bank defines poverty as living under $1.90 (Purchasing Power Parity) per day. This is the international poverty line. Amartya Sen’s capability approach describes poverty as “a failure to achieve certain minimum capabilities.” This means that poverty is not seen purely as an issue of economic development but includes measures of human rights and access.

It does not take long to realize that poverty has many faces. In a recent project called One Hundred Homes, researchers conducted a visual survey of India to examine what a household falling under a particular income or consumption level as per a standard government survey (IHDS, NSS) would look like in real life. The result was a collection of hundred visual essays showcasing the living conditions of families to understand the connection between wealth and poverty visually. A key insight is that it is almost impossible to predict which household is wealthier just based on the appearance of living conditions. We cannot simply look at assets owned to determine who is better off or worse off. Surveys usually measure poverty through consumption spending in a given period of time on a fixed category of things. This does not account for the value of the house, credit borrowed, subsidies received from the government, etc. In addition to this, the poverty line in itself is based on several assumptions such as calorie requirements and ignores indicators of education, health and wellbeing.

Figure 1: A snapshot from the One Hundred Homes project website (Source: One Hundred Homes)

Poverty, through its appearance and measurement, presents several puzzles. Some obvious facts about poverty may not be true. On the other hand, results from experiments to understand the lives of the poor may be counterintuitive.

For example, one knows about the vicious nature of poverty. But why do the poor remain poor? Do bad decisions cause poverty or does poverty cause people to make bad decisions? Sendhil Mullainathan and other researchers ran a series of experiments to understand how scarcity affects cognitive capability and decision making. For an illustration of how poverty affects thinking, they asked people to memorize a list of words similar to the one below in 20 seconds and asked them to recall as many as they can from memory.

Figure 2: List used by researchers in the experiment to determine effects of poverty on cognitive capacity (Source: Chicago Booth Review)

What’s interesting is that, although “money” was not on the list, people with low income are more likely to remember seeing money in the list than people with high income because words on the list are related to financial concerns. This portrays that money occupies a significant part of the cognitive load of the poor. Further, experiments also depict that people under financial stress perform poorly in cognitive tests such as Raven’s matrices and cognitive control tasks compared to those who are not. This implies that poverty in itself impairs sound cognitive performance. 

A more realistic experiment conducted on Indian sugarcane farmers tested their cognitive abilities pre-harvest and post-harvest. Sugarcane has one harvest cycle per year. Before the harvest, farmers are relatively poor and uncertain about their finances whereas post-harvest, the same farmer is relatively rich. A random sample of small farmers was tested pre- and post-harvest on Raven’s matrices, a measure of fluid intelligence and the traditional Stroop task, which gauges cognitive control. Controlling for other fixed effects such as nutrition, work effort, etc., the experiment showed that being poor reduces cognitive capacity. Farmers post-harvest performed better on cognitive tests compared to pre-harvest.

This research suggests that the poor are less capable not because of their inherent capabilities but because poverty in itself imposes a cognitive load. Imagine if you were to make a decision after staying awake an entire night. Would you be able to make the right decision? The effect of poverty on cognitive function is comparable to losing a full night’s sleep. The poor constantly make important decisions of education, health, consumption and saving in this state of mind. The implication of this is that policymakers need to be aware of the psychological nature and cognitive tax of poverty. Welfare programs with complex ordeals aimed at better targeting may be counterproductive. The timing of welfare policies is also critical. Cognitive aids such as nudge can go a long way in offsetting the effect of poverty on cognition.

This also begs the question, why do the poor have to make more decisions than the rich with regards to essential utilities like savings, healthcare, insurance and so on? A poor person, who may not have access to banking services or formal employment, must decide to save for his or her retirement. On the other hand, the decision is already made by the organization of a rich person through the provident fund. The same goes for insurance, healthcare and even water. A rich person in an urban area can simply open a tap in the comfort of their home and clean water flows out, whereas a poor person has to choose where to procure water from, uncertain of whether it is clean or not, and decide what to do if it is not clean. Poverty impedes cognitive function and affects decision making. Above this, the poor make a significantly greater number of decisions amidst a lot of uncertainty. Both these facts are detrimental to leading a good life. Human beings have bounded rationality and self-control problems, hence fewer the decisions, the better. This is the reason why in developed countries like the United States, essential utilities such as insurance, savings are left to institutions and not the individual. If a poor person has to consistently choose to save every month for his or her retirement, they are bound to run into self-control problems. It is unfortunate that despite evidence on this, policymakers have made little effort to minimize the decisions taken by the poor. What, if not this, is an indication of inequality?

Another puzzle is that of risk and entrepreneurship. More number of poor people are self-employed and own businesses compared to the rich. Entrepreneurship involves risk and uncertainty. If the rich are better at managing risk due to their endowments and safety net, why is it that more poor people start businesses than the rich? This is the mystery of self-employment. That a person for whom it is easier is less likely to do it whereas a person for whom it is harder is more likely to do it.

A possible explanation for this is that the poor are natural entrepreneurs. But the question to ask is whether poor people are creative or does poverty force them to find creative ways of earning their income? This is not to say that poor people cannot be creative. An average poor person is probably as creative as the average rich person. However, there is an overrepresentation of entrepreneurs among the poor. The poor are entrepreneurs not because they want to be, but because they have to be. 

Economics teaches us that people are generally risk-averse. So, they must prefer a salaried job to starting a business. A survey question asking parents regarding their ambitions for their children confirms this belief. The results from rural Udaipur and around the world are that most poor parents want their children to be in a salaried job. Only 7% of parents want their children to run businesses. For the poor, a job is a means to achieve stability and move up the social ladder. However, public policy does not seem to understand this. The policy view is that poor people are more entrepreneurial in nature and several policies have been created to encourage the poor to turn into entrepreneurs. Rural areas have the RSETIs (Rural Self Employment Training Institutes), which focus on providing training for rural youth on entrepreneurial development. There is no such equivalent for urban areas. However, for the urban poor specifically, there is a Self-Employment Programme (SEP) under the NULM, which provides financial assistance to set up self-employment ventures.

From my field experiences of visiting and working with SHGs (self-help groups) of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, the thrust has been for SHGs to begin businesses. NABARD, NRLM and civil society are invested in this idea, providing loans and market support. It is likely that most of the SHGs are not even interested in business but have to involve themselves in order to take advantage of the credit and market support. Even in the recent COVID relief package by the Government of India, the specific relief measure for SHGs was to increase the collateral-free loan limit to Rs. 20 lakh so as to meet their business needs. This differential focus on self-employment for the poor is concerning. 

Additionally, the traditional investment theory of risk-reward ratio does not work for the poor because of capital and technological constraints. Most businesses owned by poor people are not profitable. Different occupations are filled with different amounts of risk and uncertainty. Agriculture is one of the riskiest, yet least profitable occupations. Agriculture is subject to whether uncertainty, price uncertainty, market uncertainty, credit uncertainty, government uncertainty and what not! Hence, a poor farmer is not the same as a poor plumber and public policy needs to give attention to this fact. A reason why agriculture is one of the most intervened sectors by the government is not just populism but also the level of uncertainty tagged with the occupation.

There are many more such puzzles in the world of poverty. To unearth these puzzles, we need to rigorously test the traditional theories we hold about the poor. In a developing world, everybody is undergoing a transformation, with the poor transforming at a faster rate at the margin. Thus, we not only need to ask the right questions but also revisit the existing answers to update our understanding of poverty. Each piece of evidence gives us insights into the lives of the poor and incorporating these insights helps us create better poverty alleviation policies.

The views expressed in the post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the ISPP Policy Review or the Indian School of Public Policy. Images via open source.